Black soldiers have served in the American military since the days of the Revolutionary War. Following the battle of Bunker Hill, for example, a number of black soldiers were given commendations for distinguishing themselves in battle. However, when General George Washington took command of the Revolutionary Army, he did not allow blacks to enlist, fearing a slave revolt.
Blacks were excluded from the Regular Army until 1866. While the Civil War was the first conflict in which large numbers of blacks served, they were segregated into the U.S. Colored Volunteers and thus were not officially in the Regular Army. Between 180,000 and 200,000 black soldiers served in the Union army, about 10% of the Grand Army of the Republic, but they were technically “volunteers” rather than “regular” soldiers.
Republicans demanded that blacks be allowed to serve in the Regular Army and thus in 1866 Congress authorized the first African-American army units: four black infantry regiments and two black cavalry regiments. In 1869, the four infantry regiments were combined into the Twenty-fourth Infantry and the Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments. Only white officers were allowed to lead.
For the white officers (there were no black officers), assignment to the 25th was viewed as a less desirable posting. Many viewed posting to a black unit as a dead end for their career. George Armstrong Custer, for example, was originally assigned to the black 9th Cavalry, but he insisted that he be assigned to the white 7th Cavalry instead. For many of the white officers, their attitudes toward their black soldiers, and toward African-Americans in general, changed once they had the opportunity to see them in action. By 1899, 18 black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery and gallantry above and beyond the call of duty.
The black regiments were assigned to duties in the West and the white people in the East complained about having black soldiers stationed near their communities. While white regiments were rotated periodically back to the East, this was not the case for the black regiments.
During the Indian Wars following the Civil War, it is estimated that at least 20% of the U.S. troops were black. While desertion was common among white troops stationed in the West, this was not the case among black troops. This led some officers to suggest that only blacks be enlisted. It has been estimated that had enlistment been restricted to blacks only during the 23 years following the Civil War it would have saved the military about $10 million.
In 1870, the 25th Infantry Regiment was sent to San Antonio, Texas and in 1880 it was transferred to the northern Plains where it operated in Montana, Dakota Territory, and Minnesota. In 1888, Headquarters, Field, Staff, Band, and Companies G, H, I, and K were moved to Fort Missoula; Companies A and D were moved to Fort Custer; and Companies B, C, E, and F were stationed at Fort Shaw. The soldiers were used to quell possible Indian uprisings and to prevent violence at labor disputes. The black soldiers from the 25th Infantry saw action in the 1892 Johnson County, Wyoming cattle war and in the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho mining strike.
The 25th Infantry at Fort Keogh, Montana is shown above.
There were some Army officers who called for the desegregation of the Army. In 1880, General William Tecumseh Sherman supported desegregation and felt that all qualified men should be enlisted and assigned to regiments regardless of race. He wrote:
“Such has been the law and usage in the Navy for years, and the Army would soon grow accustomed to it.”In 1883, General Samuel B. Holabird asked Congress to abolish the distinction between white and black troops.
In 1866, Congress directed each permanent Army post to establish a school. Regimental chaplains were assigned the responsibility for providing education at these schools. In 1875, George Gatewood Mullins was assigned as Chaplain to the 25th Infantry. He had a master’s degree from the University of Kentucky. He soon found that many of the soldiers were unable to read and write so he created an organized school with regular classes. The routines at Fort Missoula were adjusted to allow the solders time for study. Soon many of the black soldiers had mastered reading and writing which often led to new assignments as regimental clerks.
Later Theophilus Gould Steward (shown above) was appointed Chaplain to the 25th Infantry at Fort Missoula in 1891. He was a prominent pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his book, The Colored Regulars in the United States Army, he describes the departure of the 25th Infantry from Fort Missoula, Montana:
“Many were the compliments paid officers and men by the good people of Missoula, none perhaps more pleasing than that furnished by a written testimonial to the regret experienced at the departure of the regiment, signed by all the ministers in the city.”In 1898, the 25th Infantry, as well as the other black units, were sent south to train to fight in Cuba. It was assumed that the black soldiers would be more resistant to the tropical diseases which they would encounter. Here they encountered Jim Crow laws and they were refused service in local businesses.
In Cuba, the 25th Infantry saw action in the battle of El Caney where they worked their way to the top of a hill under heavy fire to capture a stone fort.
Following the war in Cuba, the 25th Infantry was assigned to posts in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1899 they were sent to the Philippines where they fought to put down a rebellion. The black soldiers found themselves in the position of fighting against oppressed islanders who were seeking independence from foreign (i.e. U.S.) rule. One of the members of the 25th Infantry, M.W. Saddler, would write:
“We are now arrayed to meet a common foe, men of our own hue and color. Whether it is right to reduce these people to submission is not a question for a soldier to decide. Our oaths of allegiance know neither race, color, nor nation.”Following the Philippine Insurrection, the 25th Infantry, with the exception of the 2nd Battalion, was sent to Fort Niobara, Nebraska.